Coulson air tanker crash: ‘At the end of the day, this is a dangerous mission’

Three members of the Coulson family are on their way to Australia following the crash of their C-130 Hercules firefighting air tanker in New South Wales, which killed all three crew members.

“We are all terribly sad about this. It’s devastating for everyone involved,” said Foster Coulson, president of the Coulson Group, based in Port Alberni.

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“We look at all our team members in our company as an extended part of our family. It’s a very difficult time for everybody.”

Australian wildfire officials lost contact with the aircraft, operated by Coulson Aviation, on Thursday afternoon. The airtanker was assisting with firefighting activities in the Snowy Monaro area of New South Wales.

Everyone on board – three American aerial firefighters – was killed.

Coulson said he, his brother Britt, who is president of Coulson Aviation, and their father Wayne, the company’s chief executive officer, were heading to Australia.

Coulson Aviation has grounded its other firefighting aircraft as a precaution pending an investigation, reducing planes available to firefighters in New South Wales and neighbouring Victoria state.

The four-propeller Hercules that crashed was able to drop more than 15,000 litres of fire retardant in a single pass.

“We needed to give our team members a moment,” Foster Coulson said. “Our customers brought in teams to support them, which was very wonderful and gracious of them.

“At the end of the day, this is a dangerous mission. As difficult as I believe this is for everyone involved in this, it’s another day now and we have to go do what we do as a company and provide support to the team members on the ground who are actively fighting these fires.”

The deaths came as Australia grapples with an unprecedented fire season that has left a large swath of destruction. The tragedy brings the death toll from the blazes to at least 31 since September. The fires have destroyed more than 2,600 homes and razed more than 10.4 million hectares.

Coulson Aviation said in a statement that the air tanker was lost after it left Richmond in New South Wales with retardant for a firebombing mission.

“The only thing I have from the field reports are that the plane came down, it’s crashed and there was a large fireball associated with that crash,” Rural Fire Service Commissioner Shane Fitzsimmons said at a news conference.

“We will be forever indebted to the enormous contributions and ultimate sacrifice that’s been paid by these extraordinary individuals,” Fitzsimmons said.

Coulson Aviation operates mainly out of the U.S. and Australia.

Its fleet in Australia consists of a large air tanker, a Boeing 737, which it sold to the government of New South Wales but continues to operate for them. It also operates its own Boeing 737 fireliner in New South Wales.

The company has another C-130 firefighting air tanker and four helicopters based in Victoria state.

“We’ve been there throughout this whole fire season in Australia. It has been a terrible time for them since it really started for them in October, November,” said Foster Coulson, noting the company has been working in Australia for 19 years.

The Australian Transport Safety Bureau, the national air-crash investigator, and state police will investigate the crash site, which firefighters described as an active fire ground.

Foster Coulson said it’s too early to speculate on what caused the crash. “Everyone’s going to be looking at this and everyone’s trying to understand what happened and I’m sure when we know, it will be released,” he said.

“We believe we have the best safety programs, maintenance programs, pilot-training programs. I think what it comes down to – and because we’re still under investigation, we really can’t say – it’s a dangerous job.”

B.C. Forests Minister Doug Donaldson issued a statement extending the provincial government’s “deepest sympathies to the families and friends of the flight crew and to the staff of Coulson Aviation.”

Forty-five B.C. Wildfire Service staff have been deployed to Australia as part of a contingent of 172 Canadian firefighting personnel, Donaldson said. “We will continue to respond to requests for assistance from our Australian friends during their extremely challenging fire season.”

– With files from the Associated Press

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